I had a hard time adjusting to college the first couple months. It wasn’t that I didn’t enjoy my newfound independence or my ability to eat cereal for dinner and stay up until two in the morning marathoning Friends, it was that southern California was so incredibly and uniquely different than what I was used to at home in Oregon, and I hadn’t prepared myself for it at all. The scenery, the culture, the style; it all came at me like a tidal wave, full of things I didn’t know and things I didn’t fit in with. Back home, I was used to gray skies, wet sidewalks, the most vibrant of greens, layers upon layers of fleece and wool clothing, and the fact that I could drive 10 miles in almost any direction and hit a farm. I unknowingly took comfort in every one of those things while I was home, not really comprehending that leaving Oregon meant leaving all of that behind, too.
I’m an outgoing person so I made friends quickly, but I couldn’t shake the homesickness that the bright, shining sun brought every morning as it bore its way through the shades of my dorm room window. (The sun. A constant reminder of how very far I was from home.) There was a fairly random random four-day weekend in October entitled “Fall Break”, and with no large projects looming right afterwards I was able to convince my parents to let me come home for the short period of time, even though I’d be flying back up in a month’s time for Thanksgiving. Soaring over the city before landing, I recognized the intense shades of red, orange, and yellow covering the earth below as autumn, something I took for granted growing up. I’d been mystified when September came and went and the trees on campus stayed the same muted green they were in August. But here I was back home, where everything was right again, where everything was as it should be. My parents waiting at the gate to take me home, the traffic-free drive back to Hillsboro, the gentle and constant falling of rain. And the warm, comforting smell that greeted me when they opened the front door.
My mother had made yiovetsi earlier that day. It’s one of the simplest dishes in Greek cooking, made from stewed lamb, onions, and tomatoes that are mixed with orzo noodles and then baked until a light crispness forms over the exposed layer of the dish. The lamb, onions, and tomatoes simmer together for about 2 hours, creating a wildly delicious broth with incredibly concentrated notes of lamb and the sweet-yet-savory flavor that results from slow-cooked tomatoes and onions. When you mix the pasta into this base and then bake it briefly, the noodles readily absorb the liquid from the pan and the top becomes firm while the insides remain soft and saucy. The only two seasonings used in this dish are salt and pepper, and that’s because they’re the only seasonings the dish needs.
I’d always liked yiouvetsi, but never thought of it as particularly wonderful or striking up until that day. My parents had a restaurant, so everything we ate growing up was equally good. But I came to realize that, like many things, I had taken poor yiouvetsi for granted. After months of eating processed cafeteria food covered in grease and preservatives with no other meal plan options, every ounce of my body was pushing me towards that kitchen. And when I rushed in, there it was waiting for me. As orange and tomatoey as ever. Sitting there, eating it, felt like what I can only describe as a warm and comforting hug. That first bite of yiouvetsi is, ’till this very day, the best thing I have eaten in my entire life. It tasted like coming home.
After that break, things got a bit easier. I found a Greek deli in Los Angeles and was able to start making some food in my dorm room. I grew used to, and even began to enjoy, the intense sunlight. And even now in my current neighborhood, we do get a small dose of fall leaves falling. Sure they don’t turn the vibrant colors of a northwest autumn, and stay rather muddled shades of yellow and brown, but they’re still beautiful in their own way. And now, I don’t take things for granted anymore. Every tomato from my garden, every hug from my Mom, every comment from one of you; I cherish these things because I know what it is to realize that you haven’t when you wish you would have. Food has taught me many things, and that, I think, is the most important one.